"Behind the Gates" -- The World Premiere of Wendy Graf's Newest and Most Controversial Work to Date

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In a parent's worst nightmare, a troubled American teen vanishes into the mysterious world of Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox "haredi" community while on a summer trip to Israel, cutting off all communication with her desperate mother and father.

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Wendy addresses important issues of religious extremism and oppression of women in these communities; but ultimately, ‘Behind the Gates’ is about the emotional journey of a family.

In a parent's worst nightmare, a troubled American teen vanishes into the mysterious world of Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox "haredi" community while on a summer trip to Israel, cutting off all communication with her desperate mother and father. David Gautreaux directs acclaimed playwright Wendy Graf's newest and most controversial work to date. Tom Beyer, James Eckhouse, Annika Marks, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, Oren Rehany, Robyn Roth, Keliher Walsh and Steven Robert Wollenberg star in the world premiere of "Behind the Gates" at the Marilyn Monroe Theatre at the Lee Strasberg Creative Center, May 15 through July 3. Low-priced previews begin May 12.

In Graf's gripping mystery, 17-year old Bethany (Annika Marks) disappears while on a school trip to Israel. As her parents (Keliher Walsh and James Eckhouse) feverishly search throughout Jerusalem for their daughter, they find themselves lost in an alien world where ancient and modern collide, conflicting cultures and politics clash, and extreme orthodoxies and passionate feelings of nationalism try to coexist while growing more volatile with each passing day.

"My play asks questions about orthodoxy, whether it be Muslim, Catholic, Evangelical or Jewish," Graf explains. "This is a story we're reading in the news everyday. Religious fundamentalism provides a sense of community and identity along with a relief of absolutes that can prove powerfully attractive to young people."

Back in the States, Bethany had turned to sex, drugs and ditching school to try to fill her terrible longing for acceptance and identity, so she is ripe and suggestive when the zealous and charismatic Rabbi Meir (Oren Rehany) approaches her one afternoon in Jerusalem. To her parents' bewilderment and horror, Bethany becomes completely absorbed into the world of the "haredim," changing her name, adopting a new identity, and ultimately disappearing. Her parents' search for her becomes a search for themselves.

"Wendy addresses important issues of religious extremism and oppression of women in these communities; but ultimately, ‘Behind the Gates’ is about the emotional journey of a family," emphasizes Gautreaux. "Their ever-increasing panic as they hunt for their daughter is highlighted by the clash of languages, a cacophony of sound that permeates the play. In the end, the mother's search for her daughter becomes a spiritual and cultural odyssey of self-discovery."

In early readings, "Behind the Gates" came under attack from members of the American Jewish community who feared it would stir anti-Semitism with its unvarnished portrayal of the ultra-Orthodox "haredi" culture.

Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben of Kehillat Israel Congregation notes, "The play asks questions, but isn't Jewish tradition based on questions? The beauty of Wendy's work is that she presents both sides, then asks the audience to open up a dialogue and think."

The Levantine Cultural Center, whose mission is to promote a greater understanding of the Middle East and North Africa by presenting artistic and educational programs that bridge political and religious divides, will sponsor two discussions about the issues explored in "Behind the Gates" as part of its "Identity Politics and the Middle East" series. Immediately following the matinee on Sunday, May 23, a panel of scholars will discuss "The Role of Women in Conservative Religion." When does a woman's choice of piety result in misogynistic oppression by others? A second panel, on Sunday, June 6, will explore "The Many Faces of Israel," the country of constant contradictions revealed in "Behind the Gates": both old and new, orthodox and liberal, uncompromising and transcendent, a haven for some and occupation for others.

Wendy Graf began writing "Behind the Gates" in 2008, following a trip to Israel. The first act, under the title Bethany/Bakol, was a winner in the Denise Ragan Wiesenmeyer One Act Play Festival and was presented last October at L.A's Attic Theatre. The full length version has been developed and presented in staged readings at Theatre West, Theater 40, Ensemble Studio Theater-LA's Winterfest 2009, and Blank Theater Company, and the world premiere is being presented by Hatikvah Productions and The Group at Strasberg.

Wendy Graf is a multi award-winning playwright whose most recent plays include "Lessons" (directed by Gordon Davidson); "Leipzig" (L.A. Drama Critics Circle nomination, Back Stage Garland Award, Dorothy Silver Playwriting Competition finalist); "The Book of Esther" (San Fernando Valley Artistic Director Award nomination for Best Play, ASK Theater Projects Grant Award); "In the Time of Elephants"; "A Hollywood Fable"; "L.A. Tales"; "No Word in Guyanese for Me"; "The Cross and the Saber"; and "Shanghai Ghetto";. An evening of one-acts collected under the title "Zeno's Paradox" includes "Lester and Schloss" (2008 Ellen Idelson Award winner, 2008 Arts and Letters Prize for Drama finalist, 2009 International Jewish Short Play Competition) and "Reports of My Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated" (EST-LA's Winterfest 2009; 2010 FirstStage One Act winner). Ms. Graf is a member of Theatre West, Ensemble Studio Theatre Writing Unit, and Actors Studio Playwrights/Directors Unit.

Performances of "Behind the Gates" take place on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm, May 15 through July 3. There will be three low-priced previews on Wednesday, May 12; Thursday, May 13; and Friday, May 14, all at 8 pm. Panel discussions follow the matinee performances on Sunday, May 23 ("The Role of Women in Conservative Religion") and Sunday, June 6 ("The Many Faces of Israel") and are included in the ticket price. General admission is $25.00, except Opening Night (May 15) which is $30 and includes a Gala reception following the performance, and previews which are $12.50. The Marilyn Monroe Theatre at the Lee Strasberg Creative Center is located at 7936 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, 90046. For reservations and information, call (323) 960- 5772 or go to http://www.Plays411.com/Gates .

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